In a new development, the US recently carried out military strikes in Syria in retaliation for rocket attacks attributed to Iran-backed militias operating in the region. The US was reacting to a February 15 rocket strike on its facilities in Iraq’s Irbil that killed a civilian contractor and wounded an American serviceman and other coalition troops. While the Joe Biden administration is trying hard to portray its own strike in Syria in measured terms, there’s no denying that it will have significant regional implications, particularly with respect to Iran.
As I had written in an earlier article, Biden is seeking to create a balance in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran – the two regional heavyweights. This comes against the backdrop of the previous Donald Trump administration moving too far in the direction of Saudi Arabia. After all, Trump had overseen weapons contracts worth billions of dollars with Riyadh, had unilaterally pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal without any reasonable justification, and had facilitated the rapprochement of Israel with certain Arab states as part of the Abraham Accords.
But this created an untenable regional situation with Iran being pushed to a corner. However, Iran with its rich history, considerable human resource and significant regional influence cannot be kept down in this manner. After all, it is a country that has survived decades of sanctions. Therefore, Trump’s so-called maximum pressure campaign only hurt ordinary Iranians – that too in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic – and strengthened Tehran’s resolve to resist the injustice that was being heaped on it.
Essentially, there are three parties with vested interests today that don’t want to see Iran being treated as a normal country with normal relations with the international community. First is Saudi Arabia that finds in Iran a convenient enemy to boost nationalism within its own population. This it needs to implement the necessary sweeping socio-economic reforms to prepare for a post-oil future. And Riyadh wants to effect these transformational changes while keeping the rule of the Saudi royal family intact. But if the Iran nuclear deal is revived, Iran’s economy will seriously take off and even overshadow Saudi Arabia’s in the future. It is this fear that sees Saudi leaders support mechanisms that try to curb Iran.
Second is the Israeli right-wing that presents Iran as an existential threat to sustain its own domestic relevance and popularity. It knows that as long as Iran is treated as a pariah, Iranian hardliners will have influence in Tehran. The two actually feed off each other but in this equation it is the Israeli right-wing that retains the advantage as sanctions remain imposed on Iran. And the third of course are the elements of the American right-wing that have long had commercial ties with Saudi Arabia and politically bank on domestic Christian Evangelicals, who in turn support the Israeli right-wing. Clearly, these American political elements have much interests in supporting curbs on Iran.
But as I have mentioned above, curbs on Iran don’t really work, they hurt ordinary Iranian people and lead to more regional instability. Which is why reviving the Iran nuclear deal is of paramount importance. It will allow Iran’s economy to function normally – much needed to fight the Covid pandemic – restore stability in the region and keep the political moderates in the game in Tehran – Iranian presidential elections are in June the results of which will have significant ramifications for the Middle East.
Coming back to Biden’s authorisation of airstrikes against what Washington identifies as Iran-backed militia assets. It is interesting that the move coincides with Biden holding a conversation with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and his administration releasing the intelligence report that implicates Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It is entirely possible that the airstrikes and the MBS report came almost simultaneously to effect US policy balance with respect to Saudi Arabia and Iran. But intentions alone won’t suffice here. If the Biden administration really wants to make a genuine difference, it must return to the Iran nuclear deal and encourage dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran, just as it supports normalisation of relations between Israel and Arab nations and simultaneously backs Palestinian rights. It’s a big task. But that is what it will take to bring peace to the Middle East.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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